Finding Inspiration on a Commuter Train

Commuter trainHeading toward Chicago on a Metra commuter train I didn’t notice the woman who sat down beside me until she said, “I hope you don’t feel crowded.” She had pushed a large piece of luggage toward her legs to clear the aisle. There was a Cub’s game that day and the train was packed with fans. The woman also held a small backpack. She was going somewhere beyond a day trip to Chicago.

I looked at her luggage and said, “No, don’t worry about it.” And asked: “Are you going on a trip?”

“Yes, through the Canadian Rockies on the train.” I got excited and immediately wished I was going with her. She was on her own, an adventurer, and up in years. I had to know more.

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Relax in the Train Lounge Car

Washington DC to Chicago, Capitol Limited, Train No. 29

Lounge car on the Capitol LimitedWhen you’ve been on a train for many hours the Lounge car offers a get-away. During the day, people take in the sites through the large glass windows that arch up to the train’s roof. If you don’t like your seatmate or want a window seat, the Lounge car is the place to go. Retired couples play cards. Families with young children spread out game pieces. College kids lean back with their knees tucked to their chests listening to music through their ear buds. Photographers click their cameras. I didn’t sense a natural way to interact with the people in the Lounge car that day. With invoices and a checkbook laid out in front of her, I wouldn’t interrupt a woman who was busy paying her bills.

At night however, the Lounge car takes on a different feel. These travelers are often on a long trip or disembarking in the wee hours of the morning. There was a chance to be social. I sat down next to Josie who traveled by train from Lawrence, Kansas to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. She was instantly friendly, telling me about her trip. “The train is the most direct route and easiest way for me to get to the Appalachian Trail.” Her brunette hair hung past her middle-aged shoulders. A slender, hiker body indicated she was a serious outdoorswoman. She was traveling solo.

“My favorite part of train travel is the people I meet,” she said.  (I should have followed up by asking about the people she has met, but missed that opportunity.) Josie added several more reasons for why train travel suits her. “You can get up and walk around. The staff is very friendly and personable. No security checks or hassle with airports. And you can bring your own food on the train.”

What she didn’t like about train travel was sleeping in a single seat. “But I was ready for a day of hiking when I got off,” she said. Heading back to Kansas, she will meet up with her husband. They plan to tour some monasteries before she goes back to work as a home health aide.

Robert was sitting near Josie. He chimed in after hearing my questions. He had boarded a train in Atlanta bound for Washington DC, where he had a six-hour layover, before heading on to Chicago. He shared his memories of riding The City of New Orleans train as a child with his mother and siblings from Jackson Mississippi to Chicago.

For this trip, the question for Robert was should he take the bus or the train? He answered himself.

“Bus is too hectic. The train is laid back. You can meet people. It’s a better ride.” He’s retired now from his job as a welder at Caterpillar. In Chicago he will pick up a car he bought – a 1991 Acura Legend with 95,000 miles on it. “That’s too good to pass up,” he said with a laugh.

I asked him, “What’s next?” With a warm mellow smile he said, “Whatever the world has to offer.”

A young guy with a guitar wearing army fatigues was sitting between Josie and Robert. His hair was cropped in a crew cut. He played several sweet country western and folk songs that matched the mood of a day winding down.



Sleeping on the trainTime doesn’t matter much while on a passenger train, but it was late. I walked slowly back to my seat balancing my stride through two darkened cars. I stared at the bodies at rest. Their slumber postures showed mouths opened yet silent, heads bowed as if in prayer, arms around each other or dangling in the aisle. A woman’s head rested across her seat into the aisle as if ready for a guillotine. There are no seat belts on trains, so whatever position works is the one a tired passenger will take.

I turned the light above my seat on. As if reading by starlight, I finished a few chapters of Paul Theroux’s book The Deep South. Ready for sleep, I unfolded my lavender-colored pashmina and wrapped it around my feet and up to my shoulders. It acts as my bed sheet, bringing comfort and sweet dreams my way.